SINGAPORE: When it comes to ultra-processed food, chicken nuggets are the top choice for Singaporeans, according to a survey commissioned by programme Talking Point.
And almost two in three of those surveyed said they started eating ultra-processed food before the age of 13.
But what does eating chicken nuggets consistently from a young age do to children?
One problem with consuming more processed food from young — which food scientist Yang Hongshun agrees is the case now compared with 20 years ago — is that this increases one’s threshold for salt and sugar.
“When you try natural food, without the same amount of salt … colour, taste or smell, maybe you’d find that it’s not (tasty),” said the assistant professor from the National University of Singapore’s Food Science and Technology Department.
While people know that ultra-processed foods are not good for them, what is it that makes chicken nuggets so addictive?
The programme Talking Point finds out what they are really made of and whether they are even unhealthier than people realise. (Watch the episode here.)
VARYING GREATLY IN COMPOSITION
In the survey of nearly 8,000 Singaporeans, conducted by the Singapore Management University in collaboration with Talking Point, respondents said up to 30 per cent of their meals every week contained ultra-processed foods.
The study investigates local consumption patterns, attitudes and perceptions about ultra-processed foods.
WATCH: What's really in my chicken nuggets (23:54)
And it seems that many Singaporeans believe the rumour — even though it is unverified — that nuggets are made of unwanted parts of a chicken, like intestine, liver and even crushed bones, all minced into a paste.
So what exactly goes into the chicken nuggets in Singapore, where 4,400 tonnes were imported from countries like Thailand and Malaysia in 2018?
National University Hospital head of pathology Tan Soo Yong extracted samples of nuggets from five different brands and found that they did not contain organs such as liver, kidney or intestine.
Instead, they were composed of muscle, fat, bits of bones and other tissue constituents including collagen, vessels and nerves, as well as vegetative material.
The amount of muscle, or what is commonly known as meat, in the samples ranged from 15 to 60 per cent. The muscle to fat ratio also differed greatly across brands, as different parts of the chicken meat were used.
“What does surprise me … is the relative proportion of muscle versus fat in different brands,” said the associate professor.
“If you’re on a diet … you might be interested to know what percentages of muscle and fat are present in your favourite chicken nugget.”
Typically, chicken breast has the least fat, followed by the drumstick, wing and thigh. If these parts have their skin on, the fat content is higher.
SODIUM OR FAT?
Tasty Meat Products, whose factory here produces more than 150,000 nuggets a day, uses meat from the drumstick and thigh because it is juicier and cheaper than chicken breast, which is reserved for premium products.
Its managing director, Sunny Choo, said its nuggets contain about 65 per cent meat, but he has heard of manufacturers that use 20 per cent chicken meat.
The main ingredients of the company’s nuggets besides meat, he said, include textured vegetable protein (which is soya-based), chicken bouillon and modified starch. And the flavour is boosted by the nuggets’ coating, a machine-made combination of bouillon, starches and flours.
The proportions of all these ingredients depend on the manufacturer.
“For instance, (if) you want a cheaper product, then you have to put more of this soya protein, (whose volume) you can inflate (by) two times (with) water,” said Choo. “It would reduce your cost.”
Nuggets made of meat from chicken leg are also cheaper, by 20 to 30 per cent, than those made from chicken breast. But they also contain more fat.
Eat Right Nutrition Consultancy principal dietitian Derrick Ong said nuggets with more fat tend to also have more saturated fat. But this does not necessarily mean nuggets with more fat are unhealthier.
Comparing the labels on some nuggets sold in supermarkets, he pointed out that the saturated fat level of one brand was 2.9 grammes per 100 g, “which is fairly low”, but its sodium level was 610 milligrammes.
Another brand had a lower sodium content, at 520 mg, even though it contained 4 g of saturated fat. “There’s kind of this trend," he said. “The higher the saturated fat, the sodium content tends to be lower.”
There is a trade-off between the “mouth feel” of the fats and the sodium flavour. “Neither is very good for health,” he added.
Too much saturated fat can increase the risk of heart disease, but too much sodium can also increase the risk of hypertension and heart disease.
By eating six pieces of nuggets totalling 510 mg of sodium and 2.5 g of saturated fat, one would have consumed 25 per cent of the recommended daily intake of sodium and up to 15 per cent or so of the recommended intake of saturated fat.
Yet, the flavour can get people hooked early in life. Apart from that, nuggets stand out from other ultra-processed foods and is attractive to children because of the size.
“It’s something that you can pop into your mouth easily,” said food blogger Alexis Cheong.
Fast food chains also play a part in inculcating this habit of serving nuggets to children from young by, for example, making it part of a meal to share and enjoy.
“A lot of times we’re focused more on the bonding moments, instead of what (we) are eating and how processed or unhealthy it is,” she said. “As you grow up, it also becomes part of that wonderful memory you have.”
Some fast food chains also periodically release new flavours or time- limited offers to keep consumers coming back for more.
“With habit … all of that combined makes nuggets a really hard thing to resist,” she added.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.